I have this week been in email correspondence with some Oxford college chaplains and what I notice is that most seem to think it obligatory after their name to state their pronouns: she/her, he/his, they/theirs.
It made me think of that thorny problem: what should God’s pronouns be. Is God best represented as Father, mother, or person. Problem one: if God’s pronouns are they/theirs we might be accused of reverting to the polytheism which the Old Testament spends most of its time refuting. Is YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, the only God or one amongst many in a divine assembly of deities?
Perhaps it’s more important to think about what are we really trying to say about God’s nature.
1. God is Love, self-giving – like a good parent.
2. Do you remember the General confession of the Prayer Book? ‘Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.’ So God is mercy, justice/fairness – like a good parent.
3. God is relational. One of the virtues of the doctrine of the Trinity – Father Son and Holy Spirit is the idea of relationship: the constituent parts of the Trinity relating with each other harmoniously. Much of the imagery of our religion is relational: Holy communion; Christian action – loving your neighbour as yourself; those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.
For children to learn good relationship is a by-product of good parenting.
Which brings me to Mothering Sunday
But parents mess up: Philip Larkin
The fuck/mess you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to but they do
The fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
I remember the sigh of relief on Mothering Sunday when my associate priest first had the courage to quote it. Mums around the congregation were saying to themselves, thank goodness he’s not going to pretend this business of parenthood is an idyllic doddle. He’s not going to sentimentalise that we are all perfect and that life is all daffodils, however much we are charmed into thinking so for a second when our little ones come round the pews offering us posies and the tears of joy start welling up.
Then we have the image of Mary and her unbearable trauma of seeing her son helpless on the cross. It is one of the greatest psychological pains known to nature to be powerless in the face of your child’s suffering or death. I just wish it could have been me! I would rather it had been me. It runs deep: you often see the same desperate emotion in an animal when her young are ripped away from her.
In this analogy of God and parenting, does God mess up too? Many think he does because of the problem of evil in the world. But here we have a philosophical problem: we are speaking in analogies and analogies can be stretched too far; that’s a very big problem for religion language, which is inevitably always analogous, e.g. God is like a strong tower, or like a mighty king, or like the owner of a country estate. Where do you draw the line? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? Isn’t that the problem with fundamentalism and literalism? People can become obsessed with an overstretched analogy and then get tied in theological knots because of all its inadequacies and weaknesses. Analogies are useful, but we need to know when to let go of them.
Going back to where I started with the pronouns question: Are we to say our parent who art in heaven? Or our mother? Or can we stick with our Father, knowing the inadequacy and political incorrectness and un-wokeness of the analogy and yet also realising that it has been a rich source of understanding of God. Just think of the story of the Prodigal Son, which highlights the unending love of a generous father – but raises the problem of the older son, the consistently faithful servant of the farm who you could easily say was meanly treated by his father.
Back in the Biblical day, people saw gods as similar to themselves, but bigger and larger than life physical beings who created worlds, feasted and fathered children. Then, as Greek ideas and philosophy spread further afield, thinkers in the Judaic and Christian traditions began to reflect that the creative power behind the universe must be incorporeal, without a body, more a force, or an abstract principle, or divine mind, nothing like us! And this abstract philosophical view came to shape Christian theology, so, in many ways, God the Father is a long-ago anachronism, but it works as poetry, it makes the infinitely abstract somehow tangible, accessible. And if that works, so much the better. We just have to discover how religious language is a mixture of history, poetry, science, analogy, metaphor, speculation, faith and belief. We mean what we say, but we cannot possibly believe every word of it. And if a phrase or a creed or a hymn works to express the inexpressible, let’s hang on to it.